Politics has become a bloated balloon on the horizon of our days, marked with the face of the Pr*sident, grinning under his orange corona like a demented sun-god, a raucous Ra. It burns.
At sixty, I can remember the 60s. The mad carnival mood that has overtaken our country, after the modulated melodies of the Obama era, is no friendly festival for me. Our Festus is festering. I stumble towards the desert of Lent with relief. Fat Tuesday is my good news day. I have a great desire to reflect.
What do I see? A great increase in obvious oppression. A rise in fascist rhetoric. A radical realignment from righteousness towards rigidity. All this in the interests of an ever more evident status quo serving a hungry kleptocracy. They smell blood in the water. Me and mine are the bleeding minnows that must somehow survive this sea change.
What do I mean by “oppression?” It is the opposite of empowerment, a theft of ownership.
What do I mean by “ownership?” I’m a sixty-year-old under-employed artist. My job prospects are dismal—I haven’t held a legitimate position in nearly a decade, and barely get by as a LYFT driver. That’s not an impressive credit. True, I write every day. For free. I recently consulted a financial advisor, sensing the growing tide of personal poverty that is threatening to capsize my little canoe of no state. We talked about my assets and liabilities. The conclusion: about $300 in assets and $24,000 in debt. So, what do I own? Jack shit.
Well, that’s not quite true. Philosophically speaking, I own the only thing that anybody can ultimately own—a bit of myself. Being an artist, reader, writer, and contemplative has not brought me much, but it has taught me about true ownership.
All literature, all art, bends to this single question: how can we own ourselves? It may be presented as Oedipus’s desperate search for the truth, or Hamlet’s quest for the readiness that is all. It may be Ishmael’s pilgrimage to the sea, or Stephen Dedalus in search of a father. It may be Jane Eyre in search of a purpose, or Louisa May Alcott’s little women in search of maturity. I find the theme in David Copperfield’s investigation of the important question, “Am I the hero of my own life?” I find it in Roskolnikov’s ache for redemption, Huck’s flight from civilization, and in Little Jack Horner’s hopeful and plaintive cry: “O what a good boy am I!”
All oppression seeks one thing: to rob us of ourselves. It may manifest as political oppression, economic oppression, racism, sexism, ageism, or war—the entire discordant medley—but it is always the same smirking Devil with the same purpose: to crush our souls by stealing our sense of self.
The fight is always this: how do we remain ourselves in the face of the onslaught of this evil—the forces of history, manifest in tyrants, that would rob us of meaning?
The Big Liars would steal truth, and, if possible, seduce us to seek relief in our own immolation in the name of greatness and nationalism and America First, which in fact puts you and me last. Only those at the peak of this absurdist pyramid scheme will feel the sun before the entire edifice topples.
How shall we be saved?
I turn to the poetry of witness. Today, I randomly pulled from my bookcase the collected poems of the great Vietnamese monk, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, gathered together under the wonderful title call me by my true names.
That is the point here, isn’t it? Let us always remember our true names. Let us claim queer and proud when our enemies cry sick and demented. Let us claim free and fierce when our enemies cry foolish and feeble. Let us persist when our enemies say we have been warned.
The overwhelming reality of the Trump ascendancy and what it means to so many can trick us into forgetting that all witness is important.
Yes, it matters that Trump is packing his cabinet with crapulous cronies. But it also matters that this morning the wild turkeys that share our quiet street here in Rodeo visited our porch at sunrise and we took note, as we should. And the oranges on the backyard tree are ripening and falling to the ground, so they must be harvested. My partner, the gardener, tells me that we must transplant the rose bushes before the weather changes again. He had hoped to wait until they were dormant, but because of the drought and the rains that have come with El Niño, they have not gone dormant this season and that signifies something, doesn’t it? I don’t claim to know what, but it is something to note: things signify. Always.
So much depends on the turkeys and the roses and the oranges.
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.